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The Data Crunchers Are Invading Hollywood - Numbers Analysis Comes To The Screenplay

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by Tambay A. Obenson
May 6, 2013 11:04 PM
9 Comments
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When my father, who was an engineer, would repeatedly say to me, as a kid, "math is everywhere," I'm not sure this is what he had in mind.

On the heels of Steven Soderbergh's sobering State of Hollywood Cinema keynote speech last week, as well as my repost of Esquire's Relativity Media/Ryan Kavenaugh "Mathematics Of Movie-making" profile, comes this piece published on the New York Times' website yesterday, titled Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data.

Here's how it begins:

Forget zombies. The data crunchers are invading Hollywood. The same kind of numbers analysis that has reshaped areas like politics and online marketing is increasingly being used by the entertainment industry. Now, the slicing and dicing is seeping into one of the last corners of Hollywood where creativity and old-fashioned instinct still hold sway: the screenplay. A chain-smoking former statistics professor named Vinny Bruzzese — “the reigning mad scientist of Hollywood,” in the words of one studio customer — has started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers. 

And if you're thinking that there's no way any studio exec would pay the $20,000 fee for Mr Bruzzese's service, think again. According to the New York Times piece, some already are; and not only are they using his service, they've done so with success.

Already they have quietly hired Mr. Bruzzese’s company to analyze about 100 scripts, including an early treatment for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which has taken in $484.8 million worldwide.

Naturally, screenwriters aren't too thrilled with this development, and intrusion into their creative process.

“This is my worst nightmare” said Ol Parker, a writer whose film credits include “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” “It’s the enemy of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”

That's funny; I thought we were already there! Or certainly very close to getting there.

And while Bruzzese's $20,000 service isn't yet an industry standard, it seems to have legs...

But ignore it at your peril, according to one production executive. Motion Picture Group, of Culver City, Calif., analyzed the script for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” said the executive, who worked on the film, but the production companies that supplied it to 20th Century Fox did not heed all of the advice. The movie flopped. 


The profile goes on to say that studios have cut spending on internal script development, and with increased movie-making stakes, they rely even more on research like that provided by Bruzzese's company, which takes the guesswork out of the process (although not entirely), and minimizes risk.

By the way, those of you in TV and on Broadway, look out, because Bruzzese plans to take his service to Broadway and television as well, now that he has traction in the movie business.

You can read the full New York Times piece HERE.

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9 Comments

  • CareyCarey | May 9, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    Although Tambay didn't go "here" I will. This system of analyzing trends (and selling the data) has been going on for years. As the computer industry evolved, making some systems obsolete within months of their initial offering, the reliability of the data improved immensely - and with breakneck speed. Not only in the movie business has this been going on, but in the world of music as well. Anyway, of special note and how it relates to this site, the data (wouldn't you know) speaks to people of color. That's right, when the scripts are analyzed and a black person appears, the computers go crazy.

    Well, maybe not crazy but every aspect of their involvment is crunched. Now of course money talks and artist walk, so the computers are looking for the roles blacks have played and how they ( a movie ) performed at the box office. Say for instance it's a "buddy flick", it's been noted that if a "black" buddy is involved, the films perform the best when the brown skin man stays in a certain lane. Should I mention the particulars of that lane? *lol* I'd need ten more pages to do it justice.

    I don't think I have to mention loves scenes, with whom, when, where and why, do I? Nope... moving forward, even the film's ending is analyzed when a black person is a central character. Although Sergio jokes about that (the black man never makes it to the end of the movie or he's the first one to die) in some instances that's the way it has to be - according to the number crunching computers.

    Finally, I wish I could think of a song that would embellish my final thoughts. You know, I am thinking about a form of displaced anger, dropping, or blaming the wrong fool. Hmmmm... I could use Usher's Burn... "I don't understand why. See it's burning me to hold onto this but I know this is something I gotta do. What I'm trying to say is that I love you (and love hollowing at you Hollywood). I just I feel like this is coming to an end and it's better for me to let it go now than hold on and hurt you... I gotta let it burn"

    But damn y'all, I think I'd better get to my final point. When we cast an evil eye at Hollywood, maybe would should sprinkle a little salt on KONRAD ZUSE (1910-1995). He invented the first freely programmable computer.

  • Tamara | May 7, 2013 9:22 PMReply

    Wowzers. The digital-data-fication of subjective content. "Oz the Great James & Franco" made 484 milli worldwide? Yeesh.

  • Daryl | May 7, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    Not surprising, Hollywood is Wall St. I just hope indie filmmakers and writers stay true to themselves and not get caught up in this madness. The end game in this formula hollywood is doing is going to kill creativity from writers and writers having a personal voice.

  • Miles Ellison | May 8, 2013 11:40 PM

    It might not matter. Most of the people flocking to the cinematic crack that Hollywood is cooking up don't care about creativity. People who actually appreciate good film making have been alienated from Hollywood for a long time. It's getting to the point where good films are made by accident.

  • Campbell | May 7, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    "In traditional testing, the kind done when a film is almost complete, the writer is typically no longer involved. With script testing, the writer can still control changes."

    Some should take heed, and fix the script before you shoot.

  • BluTopaz | May 7, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    I was just sent an evite for a webinar discussing big data trends and content markting with case studies for transmedia storytelling and I disregarded it, now I read this. Next they will be asking Nate Silver to predict the exact box office numbers for opening weekends, before the scripts are even completed.

  • But | May 7, 2013 6:59 AMReply

    But people in the studio system don't care anyway...they just want the money...that includes the writers, actors, all of 'em...not much of a change here but good luck to 'em

  • Ted | May 6, 2013 11:26 PMReply

    I can't say I'm surprised. I expected this development for a long time. I'm expecting the next stage to be randomized controlled trials next.

  • miktal | May 7, 2013 3:19 AM

    Nope, the next stage is that some bright twat is gonna come up with a computer program that writes scripts. Feed a computer with all of this analysis junk and it`ll spit out a formula. They will then hire "writers" to fill it in like painting by numbers.
    On the other hand, for TRUE independent artists, this is excellent news, as it`ll just make your work stand out even more.

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